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Prayer for Yom Kippur

Plough Music Series

Colin Fields


“Ye shall afflict your souls,” commands the Torah in instituting Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The passage from Leviticus 16 continues: “Do no work at all…for on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.”

The striking turn of phrase from the King James translation – “afflict your souls” – invites us to search our hearts and seek forgiveness for offending God and for injuring other human beings. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and pleading with God for mercy: the faithful believe that God’s will for the coming year is inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and then sealed by him on Yom Kippur following the “ten days of repentance.” During these days, repentance, prayer, and righteous acts have the power to change what is written before it is sealed.

One of the prayers recited every year in synagogues on Yom Kippur is the Unetanneh Tokef – “We Shall Ascribe Holiness to This Day” – which has been attributed to the eleventh-century Rabbi Ammon of Mainz. (Parts of the prayer may be much older, as excerpts appear in manuscripts dating three centuries earlier). Legend has it that the rabbi, who was being pressured by the local governor to convert to Christianity, requested three days for consideration. When he realized that by asking for a delay he had indicated that he was considering denying his faith, he became greatly distressed and returned to the governor, saying that the tongue that lied should be cut out for speaking a falsehood. Instead, the governor decreed that his fingers and toes should be cut off. After this had been done, he was carried back to his people in great suffering. This happened in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur he was carried to the synagogue and brought up to the altar where he gave witness to God by reciting this prayer, beginning with the words, “Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness.” When he had finished, uttering the final words of praise to God and confidence in his eternal rulership, he died.

Whether or not this legend is true, this profound liturgical prayer was clearly written out of great suffering and great faith. In 1990, Israeli composer Yair Rosenblum, seeking to commemorate the recent death of his own father as well as the deaths of eleven young members of Kibbutz Beth Hashita who had died in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, composed a setting of the Unetanneh Tokef which echoes the cantorial traditions of Jewish worship.

Although Rosenblum’s setting does not follow the full text of the Unetanneh Tokef, it’s worth following the words as much as possible because the music is gorgeously dramatic; the fearful catalog of death and destruction (“Who shall die by fire and who by water”) that begins at 4:35 gives way to the recognition that repentance and righteous acts are precious to God.

The singer in this performance is Hanoch Albalak, a member of Gevatron, a choral group from Kibbutz Geza that was founded in 1948.

U-netanéh tókef kedushát ha-yóm
Ki hu norá ve-’ayóm
U-vó tinaséi malkhutékha
Ve-yikón be-ḥésed kis’ékha
Ve-teishéiv ʕaláv be-’emét
‘Emét ki ‘atáh hu dayán u-mokhíaḥ
Ve-khotéiv ve-ḥotéim ve-soféir u-monéh
Ve-tizkór kol nishkaḥót
Ve-tiftáḥ ‘et séifer ha-zikhronót
U-mei’eiláv yikaréi
Ve-ḥotám yad kol ‘adám bo

U-ve-shofár gadól yitakáʕ
Ve-kól demamáh dakáh yishamáʕ
U-mal’akhím yeiḥaféizun
Ve-ḥíl u-reʕadáh yoḥéizun

Ve-yomrú hinéi yom ha-dín
Lifkód ʕal tzevá maróm ba-dín
Ki lo yizkú ve-ʕeinéikha ba-dín
Ve-khól ba’éi ʕolám yaʕavrún lefanéikha kivnéi marón

Ke-vakarát roʕéh ʕedró
Maʕavír tzonó táḥat shivtó
Kein taʕavír ve-tispór ve-timnéh ve-tifkód néfesh kol ḥai
Ve-taḥtókh kitzváh le-khól briyotékha
Ve-tikhtóv et gezár dinám

Be-rósh ha-shanáh yikatéivun
U-ve-yóm ha-kipurím yeiḥatéivun
Kámah yaʕavrún ve-khámah yibaréi’un
Mi yiḥyéh u-mí yamút
Mi ve-kitzó u-mí lo ve-kitzó
Mi va-máyim u-mí va-’éish
Mi va-ḥérev u-mí va-ḥayáh
Mi va-ráʕav u-mí va-tzamá
Mi va-ráʕash u-mí va-mageifáh
Mi va-ḥanikáh u-mí va-sekiláh
Mi yanúaḥ u-mí yanúʕa
Mi yishakéit u-mí yitaréif
Mi yishaléiv u-mí yityasár
Mi yeiʕaní u-mí yeiʕashéir
Mi yishapéil u-mí yarúm
U-teshuváh u-tefiláh u-tzedakáh
Maʕavirín et róʕa ha-gezeiráh
Ki ke-shimkhá kein tehilatékha
Kashéh likhʕós ve-nóaḥ lirtzót
Ki lo taḥpótz be-mót ha-méit
Ki ‘im be-shuvó mi-darkó ve-ḥayáh
Ve-ʕád yom motó teḥakéh lo
‘Im yashúv miyád tekabló

‘Emét ki ‘atáh hu yotzrámKi ke-shimkhá kein tehilatékha
Kashéh likhʕós ve-nóaḥ lirtzót
Ki lo taḥpótz be-mót ha-méit
Ki ‘im be-shuvó mi-darkó ve-ḥayáh
Ve-ʕád yom motó teḥakéh lo
‘Im yashúv miyád tekabló

Ve’atáh yodéiʕa yitzrám
Ki heim basár ve-dám
‘Adám yesodó mei-ʕafár ve-sofó le-ʕafár
Be-nafshó yaví laḥmó
Mashúl ke-ḥéres ha-nishbár
Ke-ḥatzír yavéish u-khe-tzítz novéil
Ke-tzéil ʕovéir u-khe-ʕanán kaláh
U-khe-rúaḥ noshévet u-khe-’avák poréiaḥ’
Ve-kha-ḥalóm yaʕúf

Ve-’atáh hu mélekh ‘eil ḥai ve-kayám
‘Ein kitzváh lishnotékha ve-’éin keitz le-’órekh yamékha
Ve-’éin leshaʕéir markevót kevodékha
Ve-’éin lefaréish ʕeilúm shmékha
Shimkhá na’éh lekhá ve-’atáh na’éh lishmékha
U-shméinu karáta bishmékha
ʕaséh le-máʕan shmékha ve-kadéish et shimkhá ʕal makdishéi shmékha
Baʕavúr kevód shimkhá ha-naʕarátz ve-ha-nikdásh
Ke-sód síaḥ sarféi kódesh
Ha-makdishím shimkhá ba-kódesh
Daréi máʕlah ʕim daréi mátah
Kor’ím u-meshalshím be-shilúsh kedusháh ba-kódesh

We shall ascribe holiness to this day.
For it is awesome and terrible.
Your kingship is exalted upon it.
Your throne is established in mercy.
You are enthroned upon it in truth.
In truth You are the judge,
The exhorter, the all knowing, the witness,
He who inscribes and seals,
Remembering all that is forgotten.
You open the book of remembrance
Which proclaims itself,
And the seal of each person is there.

The great shofar is sounded,
A still small voice is heard.
The angels are dismayed,
They are seized by fear and trembling

As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!
For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.
They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes
And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.

As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record, Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

For Your praise is in accordance with Your name. You are difficult to anger and easy to appease.
For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live.
Until the day of his death You wait for him.
Should he turn, You will receive him at once.

In truth You are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood.
The origin of man is dust, his end is dust.
He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower,
like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud,
like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.

But You are King, God who lives for all eternity!
There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days,
no measure to the hosts of Your glory, no understanding the meaning of Your Name.
Your Name is fitting unto You and You are fitting unto it,
and our name has been called by Your Name.
Act for the sake of Your Name
and sanctify Your Name through those
who sanctity Your Name.

calligraphy of hebrew psalm “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4).